The government is facing anger after it allowed vocational and technical exams to continue to take place this month – but told GCSE and A-level students they won’t be asked to sit exams this summer.
In a statement to parliament on Wednesday, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson will confirm to MPs that the government wants GCSEs and A-level exams to be cancelled for the second year in a row as a result of the COVID crisis.
However, as England entered a third coronavirus lockdown on Tuesday, Mr Williamson’s department left it up to schools and colleges to decide whether they want to continue with BTEC exams.
“In light of the evolving public health measures, schools and colleges can continue with the vocational and technical exams that are due to take place in January, where they judge it right to do so,” a Department for Education spokesperson said.
“We understand this is a difficult time but we want to support schools and colleges whose students have worked hard to prepare for assessments and exams where necessary.
“This may be particularly important for VTQs (vocational and technical qualifications) which require a ‘license to practise’ which can only be fulfilled through practical assessment, such as an electrician.
“Schools and colleges have already implemented extensive protective measures to make them as safe as possible.”
David Hughes, the chief executive of the Association of Colleges, accused the government of putting “thousands of young people and their families at risk” by allowing vocational exams to continue.
“It has no message for students in colleges which do cancel for safety reasons and does not reflect the issue of fairness between vocational and technical students with their peers taking A-levels and GCSEs,” he added.
“Every college leader has been spending all day trying to weigh up the pros and cons of cancelling or going ahead.
“They were hoping that the government would be decisive, but that has not happened, and students will have to look locally for the leadership and certainty they seek.”
Mr Hughes suggested many colleges would now cancel their exams, but some would not.
Labour called for the complete cancellation of BTEC exams with shadow apprenticeships minister, Toby Perkins MP, saying they “simply cannot go ahead safely and fairly this week”.
“Once again BTEC students who have missed out on lots of core practical teaching this year are an afterthought for this government,” Mr Perkins said, as he called for a “fair alternative” for pupils.
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer reinforced his party’s call for BTECs to be cancelled, adding in a tweet: “Once again, government dither and delay mean it is students and colleges that pay the price.”
In his statement to the House of Commons on Wednesday, Mr Williamson is set to face a tough grilling over the government’s decision on Monday to close schools and colleges in England to most pupils – just a day after Prime Minister Boris Johnson urged parents to send their children back to classrooms.
Ahead of his appearance before MPs, in which he will set out a support package for pupils who now have to learn at home, Mr Williamson said: “Education continues to be a national priority – these new national restrictions do not change that.
“I am determined that this virus, and the steps we all must take to fight it, do not come at the cost of children’s life chances.”
The education secretary will confirm to MPs the government will work with the exams’ regulator, Ofqual, to decide what alternative method will be used to award GCSE and A-level students their grades this summer.
Mr Williamson was last year forced into an embarrassing U-turn as the government ditched a controversial algorithm to “moderate” students’ grades.
The Department for Education said 560,000 laptops and tablets had been provided to schools and local councils in 2020, with more than 50,000 delivered across the country on Monday and over 100,000 to be delivered in total during the first week of term.
Mobile network operators, including EE, Three, Tesco Mobile, Smarty, Sky Mobile and Virgin Mobile, have also partnered with the government to provide free data to disadvantaged families until July.
In Northern Ireland on Tuesday, First Minister Arlene Foster announced schools would move to remote learning until the February half-term as she strengthened Northern Ireland’s own lockdown.
However, she said discussions would continue with Mr Williamson in order to get “complete clarity” over whether GCSE and A-level exams will go ahead in Northern Ireland.
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